World War II crash site found during wildfire tells story of a fateful day

 World War II crash site found during wildfire tells story of a fateful day

23 March 2013

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USA — Forest Service Capt. Tim Ritchey and his crew stumbled across the wreckage on a fire-swept night shortly before 2 a.m.

Ritchey and his crew were on a mission to stop the Stafford wildland fire from consuming the community of Hayfork last September. The dark, steep terrain, illuminated by flames, did not stop Ritchey from scouting through the brush. There he saw an item that didn’t fit with the landscape, then another. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Ritchey recognized the items as parts of an aircraft. The roar of exploding ammunition stopped Ritchey from advancing. These parts were not from any aircraft, but a military one. He quickly marked the location and left the area.

News of the findings reached Shasta-Trinity National Forest Archaeologist Mark Arnold, when he ran into Ritchey at a fire briefing shortly after the discovery. Arnold’s passion for peeling the mysteries of yesteryear’s stories sent him into action. He started asking the town’s older residents if they remembered the crash. One said it was huge, four-engine bomber. Nah, countered another, it was a two-engine aircraft.

“So, I decided to get to the bottom of things,” Arnold told an audience at Shasta-Trinity National Forest headquarters in Redding during a presentation March 4 on the discovery. Aviation buffs, archaeological enthusiasts, and those who just heard about the event filed into the large conference room to hear the story, part of an archeological presentation series put on by the Forest.

Routine training flight

As small as it was, Burns, Ore., during World War II was thronged with soldiers, outnumbering residents 4 to 1. Nobody could figure out why the Army chose it as a major hub for World War II military war games. Maybe because it was surrounded by “a lot of nothing,” guessed the Burns librarian. But that’s where battles between blue and red armies, simulated bombing and daily reconnaissance flights were held.

Oct. 20, 1943, was no different than any other day at the Burns Army Corps airfield. Commanders sent soldiers out on military maneuvers, and reconnaissance flights were scheduled to detect possible attacks on Pacific coastline towns. At 58 degrees, partial clouds and light drizzle, the weather was not hostile for pilots to fly visually.

With more than 490 flight hours, pilot 2nd Lt. Byron Tunnell knew the preflight routine well. His gloved hand moved the rudder, which checked fine, the craft showed no hydraulic leaks, and the tires looked good. And so, Tunnell, observer Capt. Clark Durham and passenger 2nd Lt. J. Taylor climbed into the reconnaissance aircraft, and after a quick preflight, requested permission for takeoff.

They departed at 11:45 a.m. en route to Mills Field in San Francisco. A short stop at Klamath Falls confirmed the weather at their destination was adequate to land the craft safely, and off they went at 2:40 p.m., with an estimated time of arrival of about two hours.

Lost in the clouds

Thirty minutes into the flight, Tunnell radioed Red Bluff reporting that he was somewhere south of the town at about 10,000 feet. He requested to verify the Red Bluff weather. Red Bluff reported it was overcast with a break at 5,000 feet. Tunnell lowered the craft, but could not get out of the overcast. Clearly, that was not the weather he was encountering. He did not know where he was. For the next half hour Tunnel tried to pilot the craft out of the overcast. With only two hours of instrument flight training, Tunnel needed to determine his location visually.

Finally, an opening in the clouds. He maneuvered through the break, and reported to Red Bluff that he was passing over Fall River Mills and asked them to give him a heading. Red Bluff instructed Tunnell to fly a course using a true bearing, but Tunnell took the plane on a course using a magnetic bearing.

The weather was getting worse. He asked that Red Bluff determine whether the beacon signals from the aircraft were getting stronger or weaker. But the signals remained the same, which meant he wasn’t getting closer. The Red Bluff operators believed he was going away from the station and heading toward the mountains around Hayfork.

Tunnell attempted to go below the clouds again and again to establish contact. A few minutes before five, he reported to Red Bluff that he only seven minutes of fuel left. Attempts to get him on course continued, but without much luck. At 5:11 the aircraft ran out of fuel. The three had to bail out or go down with the plane.

A Man and his curiosity

“Sixty nine years have passed since that fateful day,” Arnold thought as he hiked the rugged terrain to the crash site. “Long enough for parts to rust and disintegrate and make the aircraft identification and the story behind it more difficult.”

But with years of research and study of old aircraft, he was determined to find the story behind that unfortunate flight. To his surprise, there was a part bearing the serial number, which narrowed the search to two military aircraft: the Bell P-39 and the North American O-47. The vertical stabilizer and a .30-caliber machine gun cemented the find it was the strange O-47.

The ugliest aircraft

The O-47 was entered into service in 1935. It carried a crew of three and was designed to observe and photograph enemy troop movements and positions over the battlefield. The plane was armed with one fixed .30 caliber machine gun in the right wing and a flexible-mounted .30 caliber machine gun in the rear. But soon pilots reported that the aircraft was too cumbersome for its mission.

In describing the aircraft and its capabilities, Charles Conyers noted on Aviation Enthusiast Museum Aircraft Reference, “This was the most profoundly ugly airplane I laid eyes on. … I couldn’t believe it could even fly; so I asked my father if he’d ever heard of it (he was a Navy pilot from 1941 to 1955). To my amazement, he told me he’d actually flown one. I asked him what its handling characteristics were like. He told me it flew better sideways than forward, and handled like a brick.”

Lighter fighters and twin-engine bombers showed greater ability to perform recon and photo duties. Thus, O-47s were relegated to such duties as towing targets, coastal patrol and anti-submarine patrol.

In his quest, Arnold found that the plane belonged to the 20th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, stationed in Burns. He found the accident report, which listed the pilot and passengers’ names and the chain of events. But the report did not cover the events after the crash.

After the crash

Forest Service Ranger Ray Beals was taking his seat at the dinner table. It was a favorite part of his day when he could stretch his legs and enjoy the warmth of a good meal and his family. The sharp brrr of the crank phone sent Beals to his feet, recalled Beals’ daughter, Shirley Armstead. Margaret Moser’s voice echoed through the ear piece, “a plane crashed into the canyon above our place.” Beals quickly summoned men, first aid, and packing equipment hoping to find someone alive.

The search and rescue team ran into Capt. Durham by the road unharmed. Durham told them Lt. Taylor was still up the canyon but unable to walk. Beals and his crew found Taylor with a broken ankle. But the pilot, Lt. Tunnel, was missing. Beals split the men into search parties and sent them in different directions. Night fell, but the Forest Service crews were not going to give up. They kept searching all night without luck. Soon after daybreak, one of the parties found Tunnell. He was bruised, cold and tired, but escaped major injuries.

By the time they came down the mountain, Army investigators were already on deck at the Hayfork station. They found the crash site two days later and retrieved maps, logs, certain parts and left the rest to Beals, including the silk parachutes and a machine gun damaged beyond repair. At the time, fabric was in short supply, so the soft white silk of the chutes clothed several of the girls in the area, recalled Armstead. “And the broken gun provided my brother with a toy to shoot down plenty of imaginary Japanese planes.”

The Forest Service continues to research and protect this and other crash sites on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The Forest Service requests that if you find any crash sites, please leave the items undisturbed and report the find. These sites are protected by law and removal of any parts is illegal. For more information, contact Mark Arnold, 628-5227.

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